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Q&A: DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas and the mood at the Minn. Legislature

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Sen. Pappas during first day
Senator Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, talks with a fellow senator during the first day of the legislative session in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

State Sen. Sandy Pappas criticized freshman Republican lawmakers this week, saying they've caused problems due to "inexperience and ignorance."

Pappas also accused Republican lawmakers of using "phony numbers" to draft legislation. The DFL lawmaker made the remarks during an interview with MPR's Tom Crann.  

Since the November 2010 election, All Things Considered has been checking in with Pappas and Republican lawmaker Kurt Daudt to get their firsthand perspectives on the changed balance of power during this session. 

Pappas represents Senate District 65, an area that includes part of the city of St. Paul. She's served in the Senate since 1990 and in the Legislature since 1984. 

An edited transcript of the interview with Sen. Pappas is below.

Tom Crann: So first, at a forum at the Humphrey School that we broadcast on Midday, there was a prediction from a couple of folks from the Dayton administration and Republican leaders saying a balanced budget and an end on time, May 23. Do you see that happening?

Sen. Sandy Pappas: Well, I don't feel so confident about that happening. I think the governor has sent out lots of signals that he's willing to compromise, but I haven't really seen anything from the Republican majority. They say it, but I haven't seen any actions that they're looking at a balanced approach. They really haven't compromised in any way. 

Crann:  And that's going to have to happen, as far as you're concerned, before you can get to an on-time ending.

Pappas:  If you have leaders in the legislature who say that they're not willing to consider the governor's main objective, which is asking the wealthiest 5 percent of Minnesotans to pay their fair share, along with everyone else who's paying their fair share, you know you have a lot of people who are going to lose health care, you have students who are going to pay more, parents are going to pay more for higher education, you have people being laid off from their jobs throughout state and local government. You know everybody's kind of shared sacrifice and suffering except this one segment in Minnesota that probably wouldn't even notice if they paid a little bit more in taxes.

Crann: So you see no movement toward a center here from them when it comes to that issue, and that is the issue of taxes and raising revenue.

Pappas:  I just see devastating cuts. A 19 percent cut to the University of Minnesota? I mean does that mean we're going to close Crookston, we're going close Morris, we're going to close the Rochester campus, close the St. Paul campus? What's going to happen there? I see people losing their health care. The cuts in local government aid are going to be devastating to the core cities that are part of the economic engine of our state, so it's not really the way to look at our future, to bring us out of the recession, to support our citizens.

Crann:  The Republicans have passed a couple of budget bills that call for significant cuts and no revenue increases. That can't have come as a surprise, right?

Pappas:  Well, Tom let me just correct you on one thing, if you don't mind, because the revenue increases are there. They're there in fees and they're there in property taxes.

Crann:  But not income taxes.

Pappas:  But that's always been the debate is that we think we should have increases in income taxes, especially on the wealthiest, and their proposals end up in increases on the middle class in terms of property taxes and extra fees.

Crann:  But I suppose what I'm getting at is it can't have come as a surprise that this is their position from the beginning of the session, or has anything changed?

Pappas:  Well, they were really pretty rigid in the beginning of the session and have continued to be, and we just kind of hope that saner heads would prevail, that if you really want to finish on time, there has to be movement, there has to be compromise. And the governor came up with a partial-cut budget. He was cutting state government. I didn't like some of his cuts, even, but they have not moved toward him at all with any acceptable additional revenue.

Crann:  Just the other day, Majority Leader Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) said that there are areas of potential agreement. Can you identify what they might be?

Pappas:  No. I can guess, but, you know, closing corporate loopholes would be one you'd think that we all would be able to agree with. The business community has even said they'd go for an additional sales tax. Now that'd be a tough sell with some of my Democrats, but some of us would support that if it meant we could--.

Crann:  Just an overall increase in the sales tax or a wider variety?

Pappas:  Or extending it to clothing, if it meant we could avoid these devastating cuts, then that would be, you know, the governor has not indicated support for that. My leadership hasn't. I'm telling you that there are some of us in the caucus that would support that.

Crann:  And you would support that?

Pappas:  I would.

Crann:  You'd support a wider sales tax or a higher sales tax?

Pappas:  In particular, a broader sales tax. I think that would probably be better than a higher sales tax because there's a lot of local governments that are going to be looking at a local option sales tax to avoid property tax increases.

Crann:  What about this session has surprised you headed in? Because we talked at the beginning and you didn't seem very sanguine about it, and there was a sting there in losing the majority in the Senate. So, what surprised you?

Pappas:  Well, actually where we are situated in the State Office Building is actually quite cozy, and it's quite conducive to meeting together, talking together. So I actually feel like I've gotten closer to my fellow Democratic senators. And also we're in the State Office Building, so we're closer to our colleagues in the House. So that was kind of a surprise. So we've been able to comfort each other. 

Crann:  How much talking goes on between Republicans and Democrats, especially in committee?

Pappas:  You mean talking, meaning, 'Can we come to an agreement here,' talking?

Crann:  Yes, actually.

 Pappas:  Not, 'We're against what you're doing and we hate it' talking?

Crann:  Well, both, I suppose.

Pappas:  I'm on the Commerce Committee, and the Commerce Committee has always been really conflicts between different business interests and how we can best support consumers. And so I think we're finding some common ground there. I have a bill to allow, for example, brew pubs to bottle their craft beer. And you know we don't hear about these things too much. It's small in light of the big budget problems, but I have Republican support for that, and I have Republican opposition for that and Democratic opposition. So that's kind of a bipartisan bill. 

Today we were hearing bills on no-fault insurance ... So a lot of those kinds of business issues you can find even unanimous support on, but they really are pretty hard to find. I think in the Judiciary Committee, they probably are finding some issues around penalties for drug use, methamphetamine, things like that.

Crann:  Sentencing issues and things like that?

Pappas:  Yes. I'm not on that committee, but they're probably finding some consensus there.

Crann:  What about the issue of leadership from the Republicans? You expressed concerns that maybe there just wasn't enough experience there because there were so many freshman legislators. As the session's gone on, have you changed your mind about that?

Pappas:  Well, the new, the freshmen, they're quick learners in terms of the procedures. So they've gotten much better, and the new chairmen and chairwomen have gotten much better in terms of understanding committee procedures. 

But I've not been happy with how they've manipulated, how they've interpreted the rules on the floor. They've interpreted germaneness very, very narrowly ... and the rules very narrowly. So it's made it very difficult for the minority to offer amendments that express what our perspective is and what our budget is. So on the one hand they claim we're not offering our proposals, but we are, and they're ruling them out of order. 

We have always in the Senate had a tradition of very fair presidents that rule very fairly, and President (James) Metzen, President (Allan) Spear, the Republicans always complimented them in how fair they are. And I've seen a successive, a number of their presidents, because sometimes other people are the president, have been ruling really to the disadvantage of the minority and not an open and fair interpretation of the rules. I don't think that's healthy for a democracy when the minority isn't allowed to express themselves, and they've really shut us down.

Crann:  The issue of germaneness that you've mentioned ... what is ruled appropriate to be attached or amended to a bill ... They're allowing less?

Pappas:  We've been caught in a Catch-22. When the budget bills came up, we were told we couldn't attach a tax provision. And when the tax bill came up, we were told we couldn't attach a budget provision. So really, that's your proposal. We weren't really able to offer our proposals.

Crann:  Is there an untold story here of this session yet?

Pappas:  I think the untold story is the unintended consequences that comes out of inexperience and ignorance is that we have a bunch of new people who came in thinking they really knew how to run state government and from what other fairly narrow perspective they have, either professionally or from their districts. And the impact on the whole state and on the future of Minnesota is significant. Usually when freshman start, they, you know, they listen and they learn and kind of take their time, and there's enough senior members to remind them that they need to listen and learn. And that's not the case right now. And so there's some real danger areas I think.

Crann:  Such as?

Pappas:  Such as, I'd said, pensions is a big one, the desire to blow up our pensions systems, which are very well-run, and we've been reforming them over the years so that it's a fair balance between what the employer and the employee pays. I think that's real dangerous.

I think the way that they're not using legitimate fiscal notes is a problem. They're bringing in their own experts rather than going to Management and Budget for fiscal notes. We've always had an agreement on the numbers before. And the governor has raised objections to that.

Crann:  And what do you see? The officials from the MMB, the Management and Budget, and also the Commissioner of Revenue say that the Republican numbers are off by about a billion dollars, whether its House or Senate.

Pappas:  Right. They're phony numbers. They're not realistic numbers.

Crann:  Would you say they're phony numbers, here on the record, saying that?

Pappas:  Yes.

Crann:  And why? What numbers are they using?

Pappas:  They're bringing in their own experts to say, 'Oh, no, no, no. This is going to save us X amount of money.' Or they're just ignoring the MMB, Management and Budget, totally, and basically making educated guesses. Or they're assuming that the federal government will grant waivers, which the governor is not willing to even apply for. So I'd say that's a real danger area. 

The other thing I wanted to mention is this whole issue of human cloning, and none of us are supportive of human cloning, but their definition is so broad that we are in danger of getting the reputation of being an anti-research state. And that's devastating for the University of Minnesota and for stem cell research. I mean therapeutic cloning is very, very different than human cloning.

Crann:  So what sort of cloning or language about cloning do you prefer when it comes to a ban?

Pappas:  There's a definition that the California legislature has adopted that's very clear that to replicate a human being is banned, but therapeutic cloning is maybe a misnomer. It should just be called cell replication or something. 

Crann:  To allow research.

Pappas:  It's a much different procedure where you're dealing with five-day old blastocysts in a petri dish, that they're either going to be thrown away, if they're not used for implantation, or they're donated to research. And to say we can't use federal money now or state money to do this kind of research I think is very, very bad for the University of Minnesota. 

And I don't think that the disease organizations that depend on this research, the anti-disease organizations that depend on this research for Parkinson's, for Alzheimer's, for diabetes, they have spoken up kind of too late and too little, as has the University. I think there needs to be a much bigger outcry against this.

Crann:  Personally for you, you've been around the Capitol for a while, well over 20 years, what has changed this session now that your party's in the minority?

Pappas:  Well, this has been a growing issue, but our lack of opportunity to really get to know each other as people. And of course, when there's 61 new people, it takes a while to get to know people's names, let alone who they are. 

Crann:  We've heard that for a number of years that there are fewer opportunities.

Pappas:  We had a really nice event, the women in the Senate, Senator (Michelle) Benson (R-Ham Lake) had a baby during session, and she came back to work two days later. Her mom came to take care of the baby, and we had a baby shower for her. It was her first girl after two boys. So we had lots of little, cute little baby girl clothes.

Crann:  It was a bipartisan shower.

Pappas:  It was a bipartisan shower in the Senate.

Crann:  So something as simple as that, a social event like that makes a difference.

Pappas:  Makes a difference in just getting to know each other as people. 

Crann:  And there just haven't been those opportunities?

Pappas:  There haven't been those opportunities, right. You're right, that's been a growing issue, but more significant now because there's so many new people.

Crann:  When you know each other better across the aisle, is it easier to make deals and get things done?

Pappas:  Absolutely. If you have a relationship, if you have respect for each other and each other's opinions, it is much easier to make deals.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)